Eulogy for my violin

The piece-of-shit Czech factory-made Stradivarius from a garage sale had travelled with me across war-torn Ukraine and carried the signatures of soldiers and the children of war widows

Our drummer, Oskar, found it at a garage sale down the street from our house on Lansdowne. 

Back then there were 11 of us living in the “Owl’s Nest.” We used to rehearse in the basement, then in the living room, then in the garage, then in the park across the street at MacGregor Playground. Half of Lemon Bucket Orkestra lived there at one point or another. (I put in three years in three different rooms.) The floor has been temporary home to dozens of touring musicians from Detroit to St. Petersburg.

Os picked it up on the way home one day thinking we needed to have a violin in the house, just cuz (as far as I remember), and it eventually – very eventually – ended up in my hands. 

It was a piece of shit, a Czech factory-made Stradivarius knockoff that an ambitious father probably gave to his uninterested daughter who played it for all of three weeks before ditching it for gymnastics. Or that a middle-aged drywaller bought at Long & McQuade because he wanted a hobby so he’d spend less time at EuroBar, without realizing it wouldn’t be as easy to pick up as a power drill.

I spent more time imagining how it ended up at a garage sale on Lansdowne than actually playing it, and it stayed in its case for years before I dug it out of my closet in March 2014. I’d just spent a month in Ukraine, mostly on Independence Square in Kiev at the height of the Revolution of Dignity. 

After witnessing the events that led to the ousting of a corrupt president, the deaths of dozens of protesters, the annexation of Crimea and an ongoing war with Russia, I returned to Toronto to record our long-overdue sophomore album, but quickly realized I just couldn’t do it. I was too inspired/traumatized/determined/in love. 

I felt I needed to be in Ukraine making music for and with people affected by the revolution (including an incredibly passionate and talented activist who would later become my wife). The band was supportive. Three members would go back to Ukraine with me, and the rest would hold down the fort in Toronto.

I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew what I’d experienced – riot cops, subzero temperatures, ash, fire, flying bricks – and was certain that these weren’t the ideal circumstances for delicate wooden instruments. I needed a beater.

Oksana Hawrylak rose to the occasion. In a matter of days she stripped the lacquer, sanded it down and painted a barricade on the face of Os’s garage-sale find. The fiddle actually became lighter and more resonant without its thick, suffocating sheen. And it sounded… raw. Harsh. Young. Loud. Proud.

By the time we got back to Kiev, the government was being reformed, elections were being set up, and slowly the east was being claimed by “separatists.” We put together an international group (Canada, Quebec, Mexico, France, Moldova, Russia, Poland and Ukraine) and a repertoire of revolutionary songs from struggles across the globe and travelled around the country to bring music to what was an increasingly underserved part of the world.

Through music we learned what people were fighting for, why they were involved or not involved in what had happened, and what the protests were developing into. And we shared something with them that made them forget, at least for a moment, that the rest of the world was abandoning them.

And then we abandoned them. The four of us and the violin returned to Canada for a three-month tour with a 17-piece monster band that included performances at some of Canada’s biggest festivals. 

Meanwhile, Marichka (my future wife) stayed in Ukraine, volunteering and touring to the front alone with her piano to play for guerrilla fighters who were attempting to stave off Russian invasion. While I was sending her pictures of the blackfly bites we were all getting in northern Quebec, she sent me pictures of shrapnel wounds some soldiers incurred during a Grad attack. 

At the end of that tour, the other 16 sought repose and I went back to Ukraine with my violin, this time volunteering and travelling at the front with Marichka. We would get soldiers and the children of war widows to sign the back of the violin to remind us of them. The violin became our pledge of support, understanding, creativity and faith in a peaceful resolution to the mess that had enveloped our lives.

Marichka came back to Canada with me and soon started touring with us. Whether in Whitehorse, Thessaloniki, Berlin or Seoul, she and the violin no longer left my side.

A few nights ago in Capilano, BC, the barricade violin snapped in two during a show. The song was Marsa Funk, a Lautari sarba we learned (and funked up) from the Taraful de la Marsa in their village just outside Bucharest while slurping ciorba and sipping pálinka. 

At first I thought the pegs had just loosened, as often happens. Then I realized the strings were not tightening and the fingerboard had collapsed. I turned the fiddle around and saw the crack at the base of the neck. No amount of duct tape or crazy glue was going to fix this.

I stopped the song and asked if someone had a spare. A guy in the front row jumped out of his seat, said, “Gimme 20 minutes,” and ran out of the auditorium. He went home to pick up his daughter’s new full-size violin while I danced with the crowd to a brassy chochek to keep the momentum of the show going into the set break.

It wasn’t until I picked up the borrowed violin that it hit me. The piece of shit found at a garage sale by one of my closest friends, that had spent years in the closet before it was brought back to life, that had been painted by another closest friend at a very difficult time for me, that had travelled across war-torn Ukraine, the immense wilderness of Canada and through 1,000-year-old monasteries in South Korea, had just broken in half, the open wound stretching like a lightning bolt across the fading signatures of men who no longer inhabited bodies on this earth.

I choked back tears, stepped up to the microphone and wailed a centuries-old eulogy for all the souls who invested their angst and pride and purpose in the violin that had resonated in my hands almost every day for the past two years.

Mark Marczyk is the ringleader of Lemon Bucket Orkestra and the co-creator of Counting Sheep: A Guerrilla Folk Opera, which runs at Broadview Place May 26-June 5. See listing. | @nowtoronto

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